Trans-Saharan Trade Routes

Trans-Saharan Trade Routes

Trans-Saharan Trade Routes and African Empires Guided Lesson (Video)

I am going to be out today due to assisting with the Renaissance Assembly and as such, I have created a video to assist you in the completion of today's lesson activities. Please watch the video and complete the lesson activities at your own pace. Feel free to pause and rewind the video as many times as you will need to ensure that all of the activities are completed and completed correctly.

The empire's of West Africa grew as a result of the Trans-Saharan trade routes. These trade routes connected all the empires and cities of West Africa and made all of these empires wealthy and important.

Watch the video about the Trans-Saharan and complete the activities that are found by watching the video.

1) Google Doc Do Now: West African Trade Routes.

2) Lesson Title and Essential Question in Notes.

3) Important Vocabulary Terms Search and Define.

4) West African Kingdoms and the Trans-Saharan Trade Routes (read and respond - fill in the blanks).

5) Influence of Trans-Saharan Trade on West Africa Worksheet.

a. Read and summarize information on the front into your notes.

b. Use the information from the front of the worksheet to answer the questions on the back. You will be turning this worksheet in, so please make sure your name is on it.


Any subject. Any type of essay. We’ll even meet a 3-hour deadline.


What is the origin and effect of the Tran-sharan trade


Even up to today, gold has remained to be among the most valuable commodities and the most sought after the rocks in the history of human beings. There are high chances that everyone knows of somebody who has some flashy gold jewelry, or maybe a weird relative who buries gold ornaments in his or her backyard. The sheen and durability features of gold make it have many uses, from coinage to decorations. Just the same was the gold in middle Ages, causing thousands of people to traverse through the most barren land on Earth regularly, Sahara desert, with an aim of acquiring it. This paper focuses on the origin of trans-Saharan trade and its impacts across the areas it took place.

As mentioned above, gold has been sought from century to century because of its value. After the fall of famous Rome Empire, power which initially dwelt in western world shifted to the east, to Byzantine Empire which was initially Eastern Roman Empire. At its capacity, it took charge over large areas in North Africa and Middle East [1]. This burgeoning empire was in high demand for gold in order to create coins as well as other identical products for the empire. Fortunately for Mediterranean and North African traders, they had already established a route to gold fields of sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, between 4th and 5th century, routes across Sahara desert had already been established by the Berber people of North African Maghreb using camels.

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By the start of 5th century, the Berber people were routinely moving across Sahara regions to trade salt in addition to other goods with African states like Mali, Sudan, Ghana, and others in western Africa. As an exchange, Berber people received gold, which was abundant in sub-Saharan African states. Indeed, those early visitors to African states left accounts of bountiful gold decorated features in sub-Saharan African homes, courts and people, from gold-embroidered scabbards, clothing and swords, to even pets made of gold! After getting the gold, those people could travel back across Sahara desert to trade gold up with Mediterranean and other North African merchants[2].

Soon after, many traders from north learned about the presence of these valuable resources in sub-Saharan states leading to an increase in their demand as well as their expeditions growing large. By 7th century, famous trans-Saharan trade was flourishing. It depended much on camels and oases. Camels perfectly suited the Saharan travel because not only could they stay long without water, but also they could carry heavy luggage for long distances.

One of the most important impacts of Trans-Saharan Trade was its role in the emergence of major states which are recognized up to today, several years since the trade declined. Among those states are the ones in Senegambia and Western Sudan regions. Trans-Saharan Trade took place between North African and some areas in West Africa. One of its routes, eastern trans-Saharan led to development of one of the main empires, Kanem-Bomu, an empire that has lived long and centered on Lake Chad. This route was considered less efficient and could be used only when turmoil arose in west regions such as the conquests of Almohad. The trans-Saharan trade underwent remarkable changes when Northern Africa merged to become part of Islamic world early 8th century.

Trans-Saharan trade enhanced kingdoms of sub-Saharan African beyond what could have been possible without it. A good example is Soninke Empire in Ghana which rose during 8th century and which has been directly linked to the wealth accumulated from the trans-Saharan trade[3]. Sonike kingdom managed to keep their stranglehold trans-Saharan trade by keeping their sources of gold as secret. The wealth they accumulated from this trade helped them expand their empire which enabled them to take control of several southern Saharan stops with an aim of monopolizing gold trade.

Although the time North African traders were arriving early 8th century found the savanna people when they had established some of the large states in the area such as Ghana and Gao, through the trade some new cities were established at the desert edge, such cities are Awdaghust, Kumbi Saleh and Tadamakka, with their destinies closely tied to the success of Trans-Saharan Trade: after the caravan route was changed later on and the trade declined, the towns were abandoned as well.

Islamic religion prospered as a result of trans-Saharan trade. Initially Islamic religion was rampant in the northern part of Africa but because of cultural exchanges among the traders during this period, the religion was spread out and became one of the main religions in the countries along the sub-Saharan region. Islamic religion from the time has continually spread out to most of the countries in west Africa and in Africa as a whole.

Away from the positive impacts listed above, trans-Saharan trade also appeared with some negative impacts. One of the main negative impacts of this trade was the demand for Ivory, which opened the eyes of innocent Africans from the sub-Saharan countries to realize that ivory was valuable[4]. Right from such a time, elephant species became endangered species because they could be killed for ivory to be extracted and sold. Destruction of wildlife therefore became rampant not only by the Africans but also the traders from North who could come with an excuse of trading but enter the forests to hunt elephants to extract ivory. Elephants whose population was high during such a time has deteriorated due to poaching which has continued from the time up to today, several years after the decline of trans-Saharan trade.

Again, when the goods for trade reduced and the trade began to decline, slave trade set in leading to many Africans being captured and sold in Middle East as slaves. Slave trade continued for a longer time with Africans being on the receiving end. Those who showed resistance during the time of capture could be killed leaving their families. Also, in the Middle East where most of the slaves were being sold, they could be into a lot of suffering as they were the ones to do the hard jobs and could be treated as animals by their bosses.

Warfare within the region of trade also escalated because of what has been believed to be the exchange of firearms among other weapons. With time, the number of those who owned firearms increased and this meant that a small misunderstanding could result into big chaos which resulted to deaths and injuries. Organized gangster groups also arose courtesy of availability of firearms and could trouble the traders across the desert. This could lead to traders losing their trade goods and others being killed in the process[5].

In summary, trans-Saharan is seen to have been facilitated by the presence of gold in sub-Saharan African countries like Mali, Ghana and Sudan among others and which was in high demand in the new Roman Empire to make coins and other products. From what has been presented, the pace setters for this trade organization were the Berber people and later on it spread out to other communities. Both the traders from sub-Saharan Africa and those from northern Africa and Middle East mutually benefited from this trade. The major benefits of this trade are traced from its role in establishment of states, empires and cities in sub-Saharan Africa, an area covered by the largest desert in the whole world. However, this trade was not without its faults as it led to destruction of wildlife in pursuit for ivory, introduction of slave trade and last but not least the increased warfare across the areas it took place.

Baier, Stephen. “Trans-Saharan Trade and the Sahel: Damergu, 1870–1930.” The Journal of African History 18, no. 1 (2014): 37-60.

Garrard, Timothy F. “Myth and metrology: the early trans-Saharan gold trade.” The Journal of African History 23, no. 4 (2012): 443-461.

Harich, Nourdin, Marta D. Costa, Verónica Fernandes, Mostafa Kandil, Joana B. Pereira, Nuno M. Silva, and Luísa Pereira. “The trans-Saharan slave trade-clues from interpolation analyses and high-resolution characterization of mitochondrial DNA lineages.” BMC evolutionary biology 10, no. 1 (2011): 138.

Cortes-Avizanda, Ainara, Pablo Almaraz, Martina Carrete, Jose A. Sanchez-Zapata, Antonio Delgado, Fernando Hiraldo, and Jose A. Donazar. “Spatial heterogeneity in resource distribution promotes facultative sociality in two trans-Saharan migratory birds.” PloS one 6, no. 6 (2011): e21016.

Foroutan, Faezeh, and Lant Pritchett. “Intra-sub-Saharan African trade: is it too little?.” Journal of African Economies 2, no. 1 (2013): 74-105.

Elbadawi, Ibrahim, Benno J. Ndulu, and Njuguna Ndung’u. “Debt overhang and economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa.” External finance for low-income countries (2015): 49-76.


1 In addition to works cited below, see Epprecht , M. , Hungochani: The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa ( Montreal , 2004 )Google Scholar and Gevisser , M. and Cameron , E. (eds.), Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa ( New York , 1995 )Google Scholar .

2 Epprecht , M. , Heterosexual Africa? The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS ( Athens, OH , 2008 )Google Scholar .

3 K. Macharia, ‘Homophobia in Africa is not a single story’, The Guardian (London), 26 May 2010.

4 See, for example, Oyěwùmí , O. , The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses ( Minneapolis , 1997 )Google Scholar .

5 Bentahar , Z. , ‘ Continental drift: the disjunction of North and sub-Saharan Africa ’, Research in African Literatures , 42 : 1 ( 2011 ), 1 – 13 CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

6 Reddy , V. , ‘ Perverts and sodomites: homophobia as hate speech in Africa ’, Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies , 20 : 3 ( 2002 ), 163 –75CrossRefGoogle Scholar Tamale , S. (ed.) African Sexualities: A Reader ( Cape Town , 2011 )Google Scholar Epprecht, Heterosexual, 24–5.

7 Arnfred , S. (ed.), Re-thinking Sexualities in Africa ( Uppsala , 2004 )Google Scholar Coly , A. A. (ed.), ‘ ASR forum: homophobic Africa? ’, African Studies Review , 56 : 2 ( 2013 ), 21 – 30 CrossRefGoogle Scholar Ekine , S. and Abbas , H. (eds.), Queer African Reader ( Nairobi , 2013 )Google Scholar .

8 Chebel , M. , L'Esprit de Sérail: Perversions et Marginalités Sexuelles au Maghreb ( Paris , 1988 ), 143 Google Scholar .

9 Massad , J. A. , Desiring Arabs ( Chicago , 2007 )CrossRefGoogle Scholar Hayes , J. , Queer Nations: Marginal Sexualities in the Maghreb ( Chicago , 2000 )Google Scholar .

10 McElhinny , B. , ‘ Theorizing gender in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology ’, in Holmes , J. and Meyerhoff , M. (eds.), The Handbook of Language and Gender ( Oxford , 2003 ), 21 – 42 Google Scholar .

11 See also Nancy Rose Hunt's contribution to this Forum on Gender and Sexuality.

12 Dunton , C. and Palmberg , M. , Human Rights and Homosexuality in Southern Africa ( Uppsala , 1996 ), 24 Google Scholar Reddy, ‘Perverts’, 168.

13 Hoad , N. W. , African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality, and Globalization ( Minneapolis , 2007 ), 80 Google Scholar .


A brief review of the region and era in which the Oriental and trans-Saharan slave trade took place should be useful here. It is not a detailed study of the Arab world, nor of Africa, but an outline of key points which will help with understanding the slave trade in this part of the world.


The religion of Islam appeared in the 7th century CE. In the next hundred years, it quickly diffused throughout the Mediterranean area, spread by Arabs after they conquered the Sassanid Persian Empire and many territories from the Byzantine Empire, including the Levant, Armenia and North Africa. The Muslims invaded the Iberian peninsula, where they displaced the Visigothic Kingdom. These regions therefore had a diverse range of different peoples and were, to some extent, unified by an Islamic culture built on both religious and civic foundations. For example, they used the Arabic language and the dinar (currency) in commercial transactions. Mecca in Arabia, then as now, was the holy city of Islam and the center of pilgrimages for all Muslims, whatever their origins.

According to Bernard Lewis, the Arab Empire was the first “truly universal civilization,” which brought together for the first time “peoples as diverse as the Chinese, the Indians, the people of the Middle East and North Africa, black Africans, and white Europeans.” [48]

The conquests of the Arab armies and the expansion of the Islamic state that followed have always resulted in the capture of war prisoners who were subsequently set free or turned into slaves or Raqeeq (رقيق) and servants rather than taken as prisoners as was the Islamic tradition in wars. Once taken as slaves, they had to be dealt with in accordance with the Islamic law which was the law of the Islamic state, especially during the Umayyad and Abbasid eras. According to that law, slaves were allowed to earn their living if they opted for that, otherwise it is the owner’s (master) duty to provide for that. They also could not be forced to earn money for their masters unless with an agreement between the slave and the master. This concept is called مخارجة (mukharaja ? please verify) in Islamic law. If slaves agree to that and they would like the money they earn to be counted toward their emancipation, then this has to be written in the form of a contract between the slave and the master. This is called مكاتبة(mukataba) in Islamic jurisprudence. Muslims believe that slave owners are strongly encouraged to perform mukataba with their slaves as directed by the Quran:

…And if any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing (to enable them to earn their freedom for a certain sum), give them such a deed if ye know any good in them: yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which Allah has given to you. …

The framework of Islamic civilization was a well-developed network of towns and oasis trading centers with the market (souq, bazaar) at its heart. These towns were inter-connected by a system of roads crossing semi-arid regions or deserts. The routes were traveled by convoys, and slaves formed part of this caravan traffic.

In contrast to the Atlantic slave trade, where the male-female ratio was 2:1 or 3:1, the Arab slave trade instead usually had a higher female-to-male ratio. This suggests a general preference for female slaves. Concubinage and reproduction served as incentives for importing female slaves (often Caucasian), though many were also imported mainly for performing household tasks. [50]


In the Quran, the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and the overwhelming majority of Islamic jurists and theologians, all stated that humankind has a single origin and rejected the idea of certain ethnic groups being superior to others. [48] According to the hadiths:

…an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.

Despite this, some ethnic prejudices later developed among Arabs for at least two reasons: 1) their extensive conquests and slave trade [48] and 2) the influence of Aristotle‘s idea that slaves are slaves by nature. [52] [ POV? – discuss ] A refinement of Aristotle’s view was put forward by Muslim philosophers such as Al-Farabi and Avicenna, particularly in regards to Turkic and black peoples [48] and the influence of ideas from the early mediaeval Geonic academies regarding divisions among mankind between the three sons of Noah, with the Babylonian Talmud stating that “the descendants of Ham are cursed by being black, and [it] depicts Ham as a sinful man and his progeny as degenerates.” [53] However, ethnic prejudice among some elite Arabs was not limited to darker-skinned people, but was also directed towards fairer-skinned “ruddy people” (including Persians, Turks and Europeans), while Arabs referred to themselves as “swarthy people”. [54] The concept of an Arab identity itself did not exist until modern times. [55] According to Arnold J. Toynbee: “The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue.” [56]

The famous 9th-century Muslim author Al-Jahiz, an Afro-Arab and the grandson of a Zanj [37] [57] [38] slave, wrote a book entitled Risalat mufakharat al-Sudan ‘ala al-bidan (Treatise on the Superiority of Blacks over Whites), in which he stated that Blacks:

…have conquered the country of the Arabs as far as Mecca and have governed them. We defeated Dhu Nowas (Jewish King of Yemen) and killed all the Himyarite princes, but you, White people, have never conquered our country. Our people, the Zenghs (Negroes) revolted forty times in the Euphrates, driving the inhabitants from their homes and making Oballah a bath of blood.

Blacks are physically stronger than no matter what other people. A single one of them can lift stones of greater weight and carry burdens such as several Whites could not lift nor carry between them. […] They are brave, strong, and generous as witness their nobility and general lack of wickedness.

Al-Jahiz also stated in his Kitab al-Bukhala (“Avarice and the Avaricious”) that:

“We know that the Zanj (blacks) are the least intelligent and the least discerning of mankind, and the least capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.”Jahiz’ criticism however, was limited to the Zanj and not blacks in totality, likely as a result of the Zanji revolts in his native Iraq.

This sentiment was echoed in the following passage from Kitab al-Bad’ wah-tarikh (vol.4) by the medieval Arab writer Al-Muqaddasi:

As for the Zanj, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence. [60]

Al-Dimashqi (Ibn al-Nafis), the Arab polymath, also described the inhabitants of the Sudan (region) and the Zanj coast, among others, as being of “dim” intelligence and that:

…the moral characteristics found in their mentality are close to the instinctive characteristics found naturally in animals.

By the 14th century, an overwhelming number of slaves came from sub-Saharan Africa, leading to prejudice against black people in the works of several Arabic historians and geographers. For example, the Egyptian historian Al-Abshibi (1388–1446) wrote: “It is said that when the [black] slave is sated, he fornicates, when he is hungry, he steals.” [62]

Mistranslations of Arab scholars and geographers from this time period have led many to attribute certain racist attitudes that weren’t prevalent until the 18th and 19th century to writings made centuries ago. [7] [63] Although bias against those of very black complexion existed in the Arab world in the 15th century it didn’t have as much stigma as it later would. Older translations of Ibn Khaldun, for example in The Negroland of the Arabs Examined and Explained [64] which was written in 1841 gives excerpts of older translations that were not part of later colonial propaganda and show black Africans in a generally positive light.

In 14th century North Africa, the Arab sociologist, Ibn Khaldun, wrote in his Muqaddimah:

When the conquest of the West (by the Arabs) was completed, and merchants began to penetrate into the interior, they saw no nation of the Blacks so mighty as Ghanah, the dominions of which extended westward as far as the Ocean. The King’s court was kept in the city of Ghanah, which, according to the author of the Book of Roger (El Idrisi), and the author of the Book of Roads and Realms (El Bekri), is divided into two parts, standing on both banks of the Nile, and ranks among the largest and most populous cities of the world. The people of Ghanah had for neighbours, on the east, a nation, which, according to historians, was called Susu after which came another named Mali and after that another known by the name of Kaukau although some people prefer a different orthography, and write this name Kagho. The last-named nation was followed by a people called Tekrur. The people of Ghanah declined in course of time, being overwhelmed or absorbed by the Molaththemun (or muffled peoplethat is, the Morabites), who, adjoining them on the north towards the Berber country, attacked them, and, taking possession of their territory, compelled them to embrace the Mohammedan religion. The people of Ghanah, being invaded at a later period by the Susu, a nation of Blacks in their neighbourhood, were exterminated, or mixed with other Black nations.

Ibn Khaldun suggests a link between the decline of Ghana and rise of the Almoravids. However, there is little evidence of there actually being an Almoravid conquest of Ghana [65] [66] aside from the parallel conflict with Takrur, which was allied with the Almoravid and eventually absorbed by them.

Ibn Khaldun attributed the “strange practices and customs” of certain African tribes to the hot climate of sub-Saharan Africa and made it clear that it was not due to any curse in their lineage, dismissing the Hamitic theory as a myth. [67]

His critical attitude towards Arabs has led the scholar Mohammad A. Enan to suggest that Ibn Khaldun may have been a Berber pretending to be an Arab in order to gain social status, but Muhammad Hozien has responded to this claim stating that Ibn Khaldun or anyone else in his family never claimed to be Berber even when the Berbers were in power. [68] [ relevant? – discuss ]

The 14th-century North African Berber geographer and traveller, Ibn Battuta, on his trip to western Sudan, was impressed with occasional aspects of life.

Battuta later visited the Zanj-inhabited portions of East Africa and held more positive views of its black people. [3] [69]

We … traveled by sea to the city of Kulwa (Kilwa in Tanzania)…Most of its people are Zunuj, extremely black…The city of Kulwa is amongst the most beautiful of cities and most elegantly built… Their uppermost virtue is religion and righteousness and they are Shafi’i in rite.

[The people of Mombasa in Kenya] are a religious people, trustworthy and righteous. Their mosques are made of wood, expertly built.

Ibn Battuta was also impressed with aspects of the Mali Empire of West Africa, which he visited in 1352, writing that the people there:

…possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.

In addition, he wrote many other positive comments on the people of the Mali Empire, including the following: [69]

I met the qadi of Malli… he is a black, has been on a pilgrimage, and is a noble person with good qualities of character… I met the interpreter Dugha, a noble black and a leader of theirs… They performed their duty towards me [as a guest] most perfectly may God bless and reward them for their good deeds!

Another of [the Malli blacks’] good qualities is their concern for learning the sublime Qur’an by heart…One day I passed a handsome youth from them dressed in fine clothes and on his feet was a heavy chain. I said to the man who was with me, ‘What has this youth done — has he killed someone?’ The youth heard my remark and laughed. It was told me, ‘He has been chained so that he will learn the Qu’ran by heart.’

[the people of Iwalatan in West Africa] were generous to me and entertained me…and as for their women — they are extremely beautiful and are more important than the men…

Ibn Battuta’s remarks contrasted greatly to that of many other comments from Arab authors concerning blacks. However, many of the exaggerated accounts are noted to have been based on hearsay and even perpetuated by Africans themselves in an attempt to keep their states and economies isolated, in addition to Ibn Battuta having been the only medieval Muslim scholar referenced here to have actually traveled to both east and west Africa. [60]


In April 1998, Elikia M’bokolo, wrote in Le Monde diplomatique. “The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth).” He continues: “Four million slaves exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean” [71]

In the 8th century, Africa was dominated by Arab-Berbers in the north: Islam moved southwards along the Nile and along the desert trails.

  • The Sahara was thinly populated. Nevertheless, since antiquity there had been cities living on a trade in salt, gold, slaves, cloth, and on agriculture enabled by irrigation: Tiaret, Oualata, Sijilmasa, Zaouila, and others.
  • In the Middle Ages, sub-Saharan Africa was called bilad -ul-Sûdân in Arabic, meaning land of the Blacks (Sudan region). It provided a pool of manual labour for North Africa and Saharan Africa. This region was dominated by certain states and people: the Ghana Empire, the Empire of Mali, the Kanem-Bornu Empire, the Fulani and Hausa.
  • In eastern Africa, the coasts of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean were controlled by native Muslims, and Arabs were important as traders along the coasts. Nubia had been a “supply zone” for slaves since antiquity. The Ethiopian coast, particularly the port of Massawa and Dahlak Archipelago, had long been a hub for the exportation of slaves from the interior, even in Aksumite times. The port and most coastal areas were largely Muslim, and the port itself was home to a number of Arab and Indian merchants. [72]

The Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia often exported Nilotic slaves from their western borderland provinces, or from newly conquered or reconquered Muslim provinces. [73] The Somali and Afar Muslim sultanates, such as the Adal Sultanate, exported slaves as well. [74] Arabs also set up slave-trading posts along the southeastern coast of the Indian Ocean, most notably in the archipelago of Zanzibar, along the coast of present-day Tanzania. East Africa and the Indian Ocean continued as an important region for the Oriental slave trade up until the 19th century. Livingstone and Stanley were then the first Europeans to penetrate to the interior of the Congo Basin and to discover the scale of slavery there. The Arab Tippu Tip extended his influence and made many people slaves. After Europeans had settled in the Gulf of Guinea, the trans-Saharan slave trade became less important. In Zanzibar, slavery was abolished late, in 1897, under Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed.

4. Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt, and Oualata -

The Ancient Ksour of Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt, and Oualata were founded in the 11th and 12th centuries and served as important trade and religious routes for caravans across the Sahara. The ancient towns included settlements and structures that supported the social, cultural and economic life of the nomadic culture of the Western Saharan people. The towns grew as a result of the trade interactions between West Africa and the Mediterranean regions and were a major center for the growth of the Islamic religion. The towns are an important illustration of the development of an urban centre that adapt outstandingly with extreme dessert conditions.

The Mali Empire and Their Trans-Sahara Trade Routes

Because of the different geography and varying types of resources, the southern part of Africa would have provided an abundance of differing types of products from that of the north where the Mali Empire was. It is certain they had some contact with South Africa but for some reason there was no major trade between them. Contrary to this, the trade routes the Mali had were substantial enough to make them a formidable Empire (Janet Goldner, 2016).

The North/South routes of the Mali Empire were the ones which went from northern coast of Africa south to the Mali Empire they did not extend into the South Africa region. This is to merely explain what is meant by “North/South routes so there is no confusion. The Mali North/South routes were not as long as their West/East routes, however they were just as significant as their West/East counterparts (Janet Goldner, 2016).

The gold obtained from the goldfields of Bambuk would be transported over the Augaghost route which traveled to Marrakesh and Fez in Morocco. From the Mali gold fields of Bure, their merchants would travel from there to Timbuktu. Another major Mali route from the Bure gold fields was from Algiers on to Wargata which is located in Salah, and made its way on to Timbuktu (British Museum, 2016).

The two main Mali routes which traveled West/East were from Timbuktu and Gao and would travel on to Egypt. At one point this route split and one branch went through the cities of Takedda, Ghat, and Fezzan, then on to Cairo. The Mecca Road, often called the Gao was the second main route which traveled East/West. The Mecca road is the route which was preferred to be used by Muslims from West Africa traveling on their Mecca pilgrimages (Janet Goldner, 2016).

The typical caravan usually consisted of about a thousand camels. It would start on its journey, for example in Sijilmasa loaded down with salt obtained from Taghaza. It would also be transporting different cargo such as foods, cloths, and perfumes, as well as other minor goods procured from Maghrib. The caravan would then stop in Wadan, which was an oasis near the nation of present day Mauritania. Here in Mauritania, some of the goods would be sold to acquire other local goods, before the caravan moved on to Walata, or it could go to Tichitt. Tichitt was at the southern border of the Sahara. The journey would end when the caravan would arrive in Timbuktu (British Museum, 2016).

In Timbuktu, the goods would be loaded on to canoes to Niani or sometimes Djenne’. This is where salt would be processed into much smaller, more manageable pieces to be carried through the forested areas. Since there was more foliage for them to eat, sometimes donkeys were used on this This Mali route for transporting the goods. The salt and other goods would then arrive in Dyula-Wangara and the long journey was complete. The merchants would then trade the salt and other goods for the gold extracted from the forest mines. They would also obtain things such as animal hides, koala nuts and other viable commodities (Pinch, V., 2003).

After trading for gold and the other products of the forest, the caravan would then return to Timbuktu. For the return trip, the caravan would usually consist of fewer than five hundred camels. This was fewer than half of the camels in the initially caravan. This was because the goods from the forest region were less bulky than the goods which were brought into that area. Even with the gold the goods were much lighter on the return trips. This was because of the huge amounts of block salt transported into the gold regions (Janet Goldner, 2016).

Along with gold and salt, the Mali relied on the trade of cloth, animal hides, shea butter and kola nuts. The shea butter was used in cooking, making soap, and for lamp oil. At one point, kola nuts became a major source of income for the Mali. The traders of Dyula-Wnagara would transport the Kola nuts from the forest areas to the plains of the savannah in Sahel. They would carry them in pouches filled with wet leaves in order to maintain their freshness. The kola nuts were such a prized commodity they were often used in ceremonies and rituals. They would also be used by rulers to be given as special gifts to another ruler to signify the importance of their visit. The kola nuts were often used as a stimulant by the Mali, and it would often become an addiction to the more affluent members of their society (Pinch, V., 2003).

After the Europeans arrived in the region, the trade routes took a dramatic shift. The gold routes as well as the salt routes went south from Niani down to Worodugu, on to Cote d’ivoire, to Gambia Valley, and to the Atlantic coast. From there it would then travel on to the Elimina fortress built by the Portuguese, and from there it was distributed to other European trading outposts. This is where the paper concludes since the focus is on pre-colonial period however, it was included to show the impact the arrival of Europeans in Africa had on the trade there. This marked the decline of the Mali Empire (British Museum, 2016).

In conclusion, this paper looked at how the Trans-Saharan trade routes of the Mali Empire were associated with the success of the Empire prior to the arrival of Europeans. This was an interesting period between the fifth and the nineteenth centuries and it gives an idea of the expanse of the Mali trade network which existed before outside influences.

The importance of certain goods was addressed. Although all of the goods were important to the Mali Empire, there were several which were the main drivers of their economy such as gold, kola nuts, and salt. These commodities were much sought after and made the Mali Empire what it had become. The kola nuts had a certain effect on people and they often became an addiction to the more affluent Mali citizens.

Camels were vital to the success of the caravans and therefore the wealth of the Mali Empire. The donkey was also utilized in certain areas where there was an abundance of foliage for them to graze on. It took twice as many camels on a caravan when carrying bulkier loads like salt than the return trip with kola nuts and gold as the cargo. Salt was a commodity in great demand by the Mali as it was used for a multitude of purposes such as seasoning food, curing meats, and even used in burial preparations of the deceased person’s body.

The main Mali Trans-Saharan routes traveled in North/South and East/West directions. They were the essential part to making the Mali Empire so great and powerful. They realized the importance of controlling these routes and made concerted efforts in maintaining their control over them. The Mali Empire owned its existence as a major power

Trans-Saharan Trade Routes - History

Trans-Saharan Trade Routes

Abstract: Map of Trans-Saharan Trade Routes

Type: Raster Data

Keywords: Schmuck,

Category: Economic Activities & Employment

Citation: copyright

Point of Contact: marie_panzer

Metadata Author: marie_panzer

Bounding Box: SRID=EPSG:4326POLYGON((-52.382406223652914 -11.362706184163741,-52.382406223652914 53.983710804677855,55.872200233765405 53.983710804677855,55.872200233765405 -11.362706184163741,-52.382406223652914 -11.362706184163741))

Native SRS: EPSG:4326




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An informed but personal interpretation of travel access across the Sahara, believed to be correct at the date of updating and notwithstanding current widespread Covid border closures.
For Saharan travel in a specific country click ‘Country Info’ above or visit the forum.
Updated Summer 2021

Government Travel Advisories UK FCO • US DoS • French MAE

SHORT VERSION Covid restrictions notwithstanding, cross the Sahara via Morocco and the Atlantic Route to Mauritania for Senegal or west Mali (but see below).
Or Egypt to Sudan along the Nile Route, getting to Egypt via Israel and/or Jordan. Or even a Saudi to Sudan Red Sea ferry. Or try the new Tindouf Route via Algeria.

Click links above for official government travel advice, but note some maps and advice exaggerate limitations and risks. For example, the French MAE map ( below ) correctly suggests access between Moroccan Western Sahara and Mauritania. At the time of this update, the British FCO version still does not. Then again, the latest version of the French MAE map below exaggerates the lack of access in Algeria, while the current British FCO map could not be more different.

  • This map is from 2018 but in North Africa was unchanged in early 2021

For centuries crossing the Sahara was limited to a handful of routes linking the Mediterranean with sub-Saharan Africa. In the old days, these caravan routes ( below ) followed a string of reliable wells, while circumventing difficult terrain like mountain ranges or sand seas.

Prevailing routes also shifted according to political alliances and the activities of nomads who’d offer to guide a caravan across the desert for a fee, pillage it, or engage in a bit of both. It’s not an exaggeration to say the situation today is broadly similar but with the added complications imposed by current insurgencies and lawlessness. The Sahara remains by and large, a huge unpoliced region where the risks to the traveller are not to be underestimated, and lately this has spread south into the Sahel. Following the tourist-kidnapping era, foreign overland travellers and tourists are now rare outside of Morocco.
No longer can you roam around the desert with impunity or lately, without an official escort or guide. As with Antarctica, it’s an irony that legitimate recreational access to such a vast wilderness is limited by human intervention or restrictions.

The map above shows the current Atlantic Route, Old Colonial Route and two Nile Routes in green. Former routes are in red, some not used for decades. Right now there are four definite desert border crossings on the current routes:

• Guergarat – Nouadhibou on the Atlantic Route
• Argeen (Nile west)
• Wadi Halfa (Nile east)
• Tindouf – Bir Mogrein (read this)

These border crossings are the only way motor tourists can cross the Sahara.

Nile Route: Egypt – Sudan

In the 1970s, crossing the Nubian desert from Egypt right through Sudan to Uganda was the main route to East Africa until the Sudanese civil war put an end to that. A war now rumbles along in South Sudan which separated from Sudan in 2011.

In 2014 a land border finally opened between Egypt and Sudan, though it still requires a short ferry crossing between Abu Simbel and Qustul port (see map above) on the lake’s east shore. Reports from 2018 mention the ferry still runs the full length of Lake Nasser from Wadi Halfa to Aswan but maybe only for passengers and trucks
Private cars and buses using Argeen or Qustul. In 2017 Argeen was used without the former extortionate fees and so as predicted, this is finally the all-land crossing between Sudan and Egypt. Report and costs here (got to latest post).
With the current situation in Syria, Egypt is no longer accessible via Turkey, nor via a transit of Libya from Tunisia. The current solution is a ferry to Israel then Jordan and ferry to Nuweiba, Sinai (Egypt). The ability to do so comes and goes: more here (go to latest post).

Atlantic Route: Morocco – Mauritania

When Algeria initially closed to tourism in the 1990s, the flow of trans-Saharan traffic, both commercial and touristic, shifted west via Morocco and Western Sahara to Mauritania. This is now a sealed road across the desert, barring a few kilometres of piste through No Man’s Land (technically, Polisario territory). I rode nearly all of it in 2020 and unless you slow down in Morocco, or head inland in Mauritania, the Atlantic Route is a boring and unsatisfactory run if you’re looking to experience the real Sahara. Fuel and lodgings are no more than 250-300-km apart.

Note that despite what many maps show, ‘Western Sahara‘ is not a country but a name applied to the former colony of Spanish Sahara, part-occupied since the 1980s by Morocco to the west and the Algerian-supported SADR (‘Polisario’) inland. Between the two Morocco built a 1500-km long defensive Berm or sand wall.

A few years ago there was a spate of kidnappings in Mauritania. All were released and the road from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott is now well patrolled with checkpoints and is as safe as can be expected. But further south the Route d’Espoir running east from Nema may be less safe.

NEW • The Tindouf Route: Algeria – Mauritania

In late 2018 there was talk of a new trade route opening up between western Algeria and northern Mauritania to capitalise on the new road planned to eventually link the two countries.

During the French colonial era this was the main route linking Algeria with St Louis or Dakar, without leaving French West African territory. It closed in 1963 by which time Algeria was independent. Back then, the Atlantic Route was Spanish-controlled territory (see map right). This 1965 book dramatically covered the inland transit in 1959.
In early 2019 it was said a motorhome transited this new route from Oran via Tindouf and Bir Mogrein to Nouadhibou, including nearly 1000km of piste. And in October 2019 a friend succeeded in crossing southbound along with other intrepid European overlanders. You may pick up a military escort at Abadla just west of Bechar, from where it’s 800km to Tindouf (fuel stations on the way). You might spend the night here then check out southwest of Tindouf (map below ) and into RIM. More details on the Mauritania page. Good report here.

Trans-Sahara Highway: Algeria – Niger

The TSH is now sealed from Algiers to the Niger border at In Guezzam. From there it’s 150km of mostly firm sandy piste to Arlit on the south side, where the tarmac resumes.
In February 2021 Algeria boldly announced that this final section would be completed by the summer, but it’s unclear how they can make this claim in Niger.
No tourist has crossed this way since before the Libyan revolution of 2011 and escorts were required in Algeria when it was last done, plus a military escort (convoys) in the northeast of Niger. It’s now said that army escorted commercial convoys leave Tam for Agadez every 15 days, swapping at In Guezzam or Assamaka for a Niger army escort to Arlit and Agadez. I’ve not heard of any tourists being able to join this convoy. The isolated border post of Assamaka has been attacked several times, most recently in June 2021.

Tanezrouft Route: Algeria – Mali

Although it was never that popular, following the 1990s the Algerian stage of the Tanezrouft Route south of Reggane (and west of the TSH, left) got closed to tourists, and even trying to get to Bordj Moktar from Tam became risky or forbidden. The north Malian portion of the Tanezrouft route is a war zone, and for years north Mali has been where most hostages ended up in the hands of AQIM or similar groups. Now French and other forces are engaged in regaining that territory.

There are other trans-Saharan routes that you might think possible, but for tourists these routes are marginal, dangerous or…

For recent information visit the Sahara Forum or follow the links at the top of this page.


Commercial links were established between 4th and 5th century between the western part of Africa mainly inhabited by Negroes and the northern part of Africa inhabited mainly by the Berbers. This trade had as its route the Sahara Desert which was formerly seen as a big barrier between these two areas of Africa.

The main four routes of this trade through the Sahara Desert were:

1) The route through Morocco (Fez) to Mavarakesh through Sijilmasa, Taghaza, Taodeni, Walata, Ghana, Jenne,Timbuktu and Mali .

2) The route from Sijilmasa through Ghat, Takedda,Gao,to Timbuktu.

3) The route from Tunisia through Ghadames,Ghat Agades,kastina to Kano.

4) The route from Tripoli through Murzuk in Fezzan, Bilma to Kanem-Bornu Empire.

These routes were significant throughout the period that trans-Saharan trade was very influential to the commercial interest of the both regions in Africa. Commodities like gold, salt, slaves, kola nuts ostrich feathers, hides and skins, European products like Gun, gun powders and other ammunitions were traded.

This commercial link made a lot of states in both regions to be very rich. They were mainly those of then situated in the routes. They were collecting tolls from merchants. Notable among these kingdoms that benefited from the trans-Saharan trade were Mali kingdom, Ghana kingdom, Songhay, Borno, Hausa City States like Kano, Kastina etc.

Source: Sutori

The trans-Saharan trade played a very important role on the spread of Islam from North Africa to West Africa. The agents of this introduction were Islamic preachers that were as well merchants. The lifestyle of some them helped them to get followers in West Africa. Some of them were able to make friend with some kings that encouraged the introduction of Islam into there kingdom. For instances, the kings of Ghana, some Hausa city states, Kanem-Borno Empire etc. The arrival Islam seriously affected the practice of African traditional religion.

Apart from the introduction of Islam the trans-Saharan trade also brought to West Africa Arabic education, ideas and culture. West Africans were taught Arabic language as the official language of Islam. Islamic schools were built in some kingdoms in West Africa that were teaching Philosophy, Law and Quranic studies. Some notable Arabic Islamic scholars and preachers made us of this trade rout e to spread and teach Islam to West Africans. Some of them were Ibn Batutta, Leo Africanus, El-Mashudi, and El-Idrisi.

Source: Harvard World map

West African kingdoms kings and their subjects started embarking on pilgrimages to Mecca and other Islamic holy sites as a result of the Islamic links brought by this trade route. When some the kings came back, they started replicating some of the ideas they got from Arab land.

The trans-Saharan trade made the use of horses, camels, donkeys etc to be very rampant. These beasts became very important in the means of transportation and movement. They were so because of their ability to withstand hash weather. They were later transformed into military use by the West African kingdoms and empires. The kings used them to travel to all parts of their Empires or kingdoms.

Trans-Saharan trade made some kingdoms and Empires in West Africa very rich but its powers and influence diminished with the introduction of a better organized trans-Atlantic trade. The Trans-Atlantic trade moved commercial activities to the coast regions thereby benefiting the Empires and kingdoms situated in the coastal areas.

The beauty of an African Woman series
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Watch the video: The Trans Saharan Trade Routes Part 1